For some, circling the streets of Patch Barracks at a top speed of 30 km per hour for a solid 45 minutes might be the epitome of an infernal nightmare.
For others, it puts them one step closer to a lifelong dream: getting a driver’s license.
John-Michael Thomas, 17, is almost there.
Since April, Thomas has been enrolled in a series of driver education classes offered through the U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart Child Youth and School Services.
He sat through 60 hours of theory and simulator training classes, and earlier this month, spent six hours cruising Patch Barracks for a behind-the-wheel experience. “We finally get to put what we learned to the test,” he said.
Thomas and his fellow students negotiate intersections, crosswalks and parallel parking while piloting a manual transmission Volkswagen Golf or observing from the back seat, all the while never leaving the confines of the installation. “We know Patch well,” he said.
It’s an ideal location to practice the demanding mechanics of driving — how hard to depress the accelerator, when and how to apply the brake, when to shift gears, how far to turn the steering wheel to execute a turn — while keeping the students’ anxiety at a minimum, according to Heinrich Sander, a driver instructor with a local German driving school.
After all, learning to drive can be a stressful experience. “You have to watch what other people are doing … pay attention to the traffic signs … learn to use the mirrors … look over your shoulder. And in the beginning, changing gears is difficult, especially at the friction point when the car starts to roll,” Sander said.
“Driving a car is a thinking task,” he added.
And on this particular day, soon-to-be Patch High School senior Thomas was thinking — thinking that riding the school bus would soon be a distant memory once he returns from a summer trip home with a Florida driver’s license in hand.
“I’ll get the Florida license, then, I’ll come back here to take the USAREUR test. Once I get my license, I’ll be driving to school,” he said.
Driver’s education for teens in Europe has been an Army Family Action Plan issue for several years, according to CYS Services officials.
The program was rolled out through most of Germany in April as a collaborative effort between CYS Services and the German National Federation of Driving Instructors Association, according to Kristy Lutz, the USAG Stuttgart CYS Services instructional program specialist.
“It’s very difficult, sometimes, for high schoolers here,” she said. “On the one hand, they have the tremendous opportunity of living in Europe. But they lose out on other opportunities, like getting a driver’s license. We’re trying to fill that gap.”
Here in USAG Stuttgart, two theory and simulator courses for youths 15 years old and older are scheduled for this summer.
The course encompasses 50 classroom instruction hours and 10 instructional hours of simulator practice. Upon successful completion, students will receive 0.5 high school semester credits.
The course will be offered July 11-28 or Aug. 1-18, with classes meeting Monday through Thursday. “With each of these courses, the students have the option of [practicing] behind the wheel,” she said.
In fact, there are four options: theory and simulator; theory, simulator and behind the wheel; behind the wheel; and a program that results in a German driver’s license — students are then eligible to exchange their German license for a stateside license in 34 states.
All participants must be registered members of CYS Services. For more information or to register, contact Parent Central Services at 430-7480/7488, civ. 0711-680-7480/7488.